The Devil's Stocking

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1413

An angry indictment of social injustice, The Devil’s Stocking is in the direct tradition of the Naturalistic novel. Nelson Algren’s protagonist, Ruby Calhoun, bears more than a slight resemblance to Frank Norris’ McTeague and Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber, and, like Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) and many other Naturalistic novels, ...

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An angry indictment of social injustice, The Devil’s Stocking is in the direct tradition of the Naturalistic novel. Nelson Algren’s protagonist, Ruby Calhoun, bears more than a slight resemblance to Frank Norris’ McTeague and Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber, and, like Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) and many other Naturalistic novels, The Devil’s Stocking is based on a true story: the widely publicized murder trial of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Like Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths, Algren’s Ruby Calhoun is a victim of the society in which he struggles for survival. Both men, through initiative and grit, begin to beat the odds and make something of themselves, and both are tricked by circumstances and slapped down harder than ever. The lesson—among others, for these are complex novels—is that some people never can be victorious over the situation in which chance has placed them, because the social structure will not let them win.

Algren was significantly influenced by Dreiser, Norris, Stephen Crane, and Upton Sinclair, but he was also deeply affected by the generation of writers who achieved prominence during his youth: the leftist, socially conscious writers of the Great Depression. Algren may have been liberated stylistically by Ernest Hemingway, but his content reflected the times in which he lived. Algren learned that the studied objectivity of the journalistic style actually heightened the emotional impact of his angry fiction. At the same time, there is a strong romantic streak running through his work. Although, like many leftist writers of the 1930’s, he considered “pretty” writing to be aligned with political conservatism, he could not suppress his rough lyricism.

Nelson Algren was a major—possibly great—writer who did not always write well. Just as Dreiser, Norris, or Sinclair Lewis could startle the most sympathetic reader with an awkwardness of phrase, an infelicity of diction, so Algren was capable of writing very clumsy prose. Stylistic nuance, however, was not essential to Algren’s literary purpose. Compassion and narrative drive propel his stories and engage his readers. It is impossible for an open-minded reader not to become deeply involved in the story that Algren is telling; Algren makes readers care about his characters and their ultimate fate. Almost against one’s better judgment, one suffers along with Algren’s seedy, victimized, often raunchy characters, wanting life to work out fairly for them even while disapproving of much of their conduct, and one becomes angry at the forces that oppress these grimy pawns of social injustice.

All of these strengths are evident in the posthumously published novel The Devil’s Stocking, a fitting conclusion to Algren’s long career. The book begins with and often reverts to a retrospective structure, with chracters remembering and commenting on past action, as if in a collection of reportage from various sources. This technique serves to create an objective distance between the subject—some unpleasant truths about American society and the American judicial system—and the reader, without diminishing the force of the narrative.

At times, Algren is eloquent, plunging into vivid descriptive passages or rhetorical flourishes. His description of Big Benjamin, the bouncer in the brothel where Ruby Calhoun’s girlfriend works, is written with just such flair:This Delancey Street alley fighter, this ghetto lumberjack in the faded plaid shirt, this matzohfied Marciano with a broken nose, this pimpified kingfish who knew nothing of the Talmud and less than that about women, was nothing more, in fact, than a muscular schlemiel who went up and down stairs a dozen times a day fetching Cokes, coffee and hamburgers to the house’s whores.

Similarly, Algren uses the vernacular of his characters to intensify his portrait of them both as individuals and as pieces of a larger picture. “You’re an uptown up-tempo woman,” Ruby tells Adeline Kelsey as he breaks off their brief affair, “I’m a downtown down-beat guy.”

Algren undermines the impact of his lively, realistic dialogue, however, with overexplanatory tags: “Calhoun marveled sadly,” “asked him, in a courteous tone,” “Calhoun reflected, cocking his head,” and so on. Algren wants to be certain that readers understand his message, but his failure to trust his material to speak for itself damages an otherwise compelling and admirable book. When Dovie-Jean takes a tour past the Statue of Liberty, the guide recites the verses at the statue’s base, welcoming immigrants to the New World. Dovie-Jean’s eyes fill with tears, for she feels that she has been included “among the homeless and tempest-tossed yearning to be free.” To this, Algren adds, “She hadn’t even been invited.”

Indeed, as an all-seeing, omniscient author, Algren frequently comments on the events of his narrative. For example, after describing the suppression of a prison rebellion, he remarks: “For the most heinous crime, that of demanding that men be broken to dogs, committed by society against the criminal, no mention was made.” He adds, “The confrontation was the state’s. Because men are everywhere going to resist at being treated as less than men”; insisting that “the uprising had not been a race riot until the correction officers made it into one,” he cannot resist underlining the point: “No reference was made to Governor Nelson’s demonstration of physical and moral cowardice.” Finally when Algren talks about the Jersey City police lieutenant who helped to entrap Ruby Calhoun, he does not let the man’s actions speak for themselves. Instead, he says, “Vincent de Vivani, a corrupted racist, arrogant, contemptuous and cunning, was the living epitome of what had gone wrong with justice in New Jersey.”

Nevertheless, Algren’s vision and the magnitude of his themes transcend his lapses. Algren holds up the entire American judicial system for scrutiny, but this is not strictly his subject. He attacks racism and hypocrisy, but even these subjects only serve to illustrate still larger themes. In The Devil’s Stocking, Algren above all is preoccupied with the nature of human dignity. He confronts the struggle that every aware human being must wage to discover and hold onto his own dignity as an individual. There is no crime worse than that of depriving a man of his dignity as a unique person, yet the legitimate assertion of individuality threatens those who are not sure of their own worth. Such people cannot tolerate free, equal, unbowed human beings. After his years of ordeal, Ruby Calhoun knows this very well: “I remain a threat,” he says, “because I remain uncrushed.”

It is the perception of Ruby Calhoun’s strength that threatens those who would crush him. The theme of perception as more important than reality runs strongly through the novel. Just as the prison inmates indulge in role-playing before the television cameras, so some black characters pass for white—or choose not to pass. In every case, the actual condition is less important than how that condition is viewed.

In the same way, the perception of justice, the perception of freedom, the belief in man’s dignity, and the belief in innocence are the forces that dominate and control the lives of Ruby Calhoun and the other characters in the novel—and, by implication, all human lives. In The Devil’s Stocking, a bouncer who cannot even fight passes as a great warrior; the guilty seem to be innocent, and the innocent appear to be guilty. Two respectable lawyers own a brothel that they refer to, between themselves, as their “Forty-eighth Street property.” All that matters is the façade. Keep up appearances; hide any flaws behind a layer of hypocrisy; convince the world that you are pure and the others are evil: This is the rule of the modern, urban jungle in which Ruby Calhoun and Red Haloways and Dovie-Jean Dawkins battle for survival.

At first glance, The Devil’s Stocking might appear to be a journalistic novel in which Algren has merely returned to his familiar collection of street guerrillas, junkies, drunks, and sleazy women. In fact, however, it is a complex and sophisticated book, a novel of great wisdom rich with insight into the human condition. In this day of authors continually “biting off less than they can chew,” it is refreshing to discover a book that takes such major risks—and that, more often than not, succeeds so well. If Algren had lived, he might well have revised or polished this novel before its American publication, but even as it is The Devil’s Stocking stands as an impressive achievement.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24

The Atlantic. CCLII, October, 1983, p. 122.

Library Journal. CVIII, August, 1983, p. 1500.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, October 9, 1983, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, July 8, 1983, p. 56.

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